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Back to the future

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 30, 2005
(Issue 2351, The Best Money Can Buy)

As 2005 rings out and a new year comes upon us, it seems appropriate that I've been going over some of my old columns from 1993-97 – about a decade ago.

Back then, this space was titled "San Diego Online," and it was only slowly migrating from reviews of local dial-up bulletin board systems to looking at locally based Web sites. The current format of taking a big-picture look at the state of the 'Net would have been unthinkable back then – simply because we'd never done it. The column was started a full two decades ago by then-editor (and future "DOS for Dummies" author) Dan Gookin when ComputorEdge was still Byte Buyer and the dial-up BBS was a mushrooming phenomenon that Dan decided was worth covering.

I was looking over these old columns as I decided to update their appearance on my Web site (where I've posted some of them – those I had in digital form) with a new navigation menu to make getting around my site easier. (You can check them out.)

What I found most interesting of that whole batch of columns wasn't the BBS reviews, or even that the up-and-coming World Wide Web was shoving the BBSs aside.

No, what struck my fancy – my delight, really – was finding one of those old BBSs still up and running as a BBS, in addition to a Web site.

So for nostalgia's sake, I give you ... a BBS review:

Fanciful Online

Running Wildcat! v. 6.1, Fanciful Online is a full-featured dial-up BBS also coupled to a Web site (

I don't have a modem-installed in my P4, so I telnetted in. You can access the Web site from any browser, but many of the BBS features (games, for instance) are only available if you download the Wildcat! browser. Note that the browser download is free, but the versions available are designed for Windows NT, 95 and 3.1 – how well a customized 16-bit version of IE will work with more modern equipment is an unknown factor; I certainly wasn't feeling that brave.

I used my cmd module (Windows Start button>Run, then type in "cmd", then "telnet") and had no issues. It's an ANSI compatible protocol, and the Windows built-in terminal utility handled it just fine – color menus and all.

I'd forgotten about setting up a new account on a BBS – being asked for a phone number or home address seems almost naïve. Even giving up an e-mail addy is a bit painful.

But it hearkens back to when BBS sysops (system operators) could be held liable for what went on on their BBSs; they were letting you into their computer, and in return, they expected a certain openness. It is definitely an environment requiring a bit more trust than we've come to expect the past few years.

Oh, and the Fanciful sysops apparently haven't updated the new user menus in awhile – Computer Resource magazine, one of many one-time competitors to ComputorEdge, is long since gone. So to answer the question, no, I didn't hear about Fanciful from them!

On the other hand, I can safely say that in all the thousands and thousands of BBSs I visited back in the day in writing this column and maintaining the old ComputorEdge BBS list, I was never before visitor No. 961,988.

Fanciful still offers free Internet e-mail accounts as well – pretty cool, that.

And I was stunned to see they still offer the text turn-based campaign and role-playing games like Barren Realms Elite, Legend of the Red Dragon and TradeWars 2002 – I haven't seen those games in probably a decade or more. Before Ultima Online, EverQuest or World of Warcraft, these were our online multiplayer games, interconnected via Fidonet and other BBS-based networks.

As with most BBSs, I have to wait until I'm verified as a real person before I have full run of the BBS. And because the ability of BBS users to access the board is limited to the number of phone lines hooked up to the PC running the BBS, there is a 30 minute a day time limit. (30 minutes to check your e-mail, look at the newsgroups, search the files and play a game – we were good back then, people!)

The files area is a bit dated – "Doom II" cheat codes, anyone? No? How about "Descent"? Still, I remember downloading the free three-level shareware version of "Wolfenstein 3-D" from a similar BBS back in the early '90s. id software was built on this model.

The ANSI graphics menus are, of course, primitive by today's .jpg and .gif standards – yet charmingly colorful and fun. The menus are all simple text, with a few options:

B - Bulletin Menu
M - Message Menu
F - File Menu

It's like going back in time to my old Atari 400! (Those of us who came up on menu-based computer environments like the Ataris, Apple II or Texas Instruments Ti-99s always had a hard time figuring out the allure of line comman interfaces like DOS or CP/M.)

Who might still want to call Fanciful?

Those on a budget, who don't need a full Internet account but would like an e-mail address, for starters. According to the main menu, $15 a year gets you full access – that's just over a buck a month, or 25 cents a week for e-mail. Now that's hard to beat. (And if your e-mail can't all be read in 30 minutes a day, I'd wager a pretty sum you can pick up a used copy of ProComm Plus on eBay, and then get an off-line mail reader plug in for it – what we know as an e-mail client today.)

If you live in the 858 call zone so that Fanciful is a toll-free call, have a dial-up modem and have never been on a BBS – yeah, you really ought to check it out.

It's a real public service the Fanciful folks offer with this BBS &I#150; a reminder of the dawn of cyberspace, when we first began venturing online to see what this new medium was all about, what the possibilities were. And it's also a reminder that if our connections were too slow and our computers too limited to handle the kinds of high-end multimedia we're spoiled by today, we still did a pretty incredible job of creating new communities, new entertainment and culture in this new space we're still exploring.